“Nothing to be Done:” Letter from Charles Darwin to Syms Covington, 1859

Syms Covington was Charles Darwin’s servant on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1833 as Darwin took his voyage. He remained Darwin’s assistant, secretary, and servant until 1839 when he emigrated to Australia. According to the Darwin Correspondence Project, Covington had suffered from deafness in his youth. In 1843, Darwin sent an ear trumpet to Covington in Australia (Correspondence vol. 2, letters to W. S. MacLeay, 29 May 1839, and to Syms Covington, 7 October 1843), and as the letter below shows, they discussed the benefits of aurists and treatments for deafness.


Down Bromley Kent

Jan. 16th

Dear Covington

I have got the little Book for you, but I have only this minute discovered (for the seal tore by an odd chance the exact spot) that you asked me to get two copies. But I really think it would be superfluous. You may rely on it that the man is an advertising Humbug. I know plenty of people, & have one relation very deaf, & everyone in London would know about this man’s powers of curing if true. You may depend on it, that besides syringing in certain cases there is little or nothing to be done.—

My Father who was a very wise man, said he had known numbers who had been much injured by Aurists & none who had been benefitted. A common good surgeon can do all that these humbugs can do.— I am very sorry to hear about your deafness increasing: it is a very great misfortune for you, but I fear you must look at it as incurable. I am glad to hear that you are doing pretty well; & if you can settle your sons in an agricultural line, they will have no cause to complain, for no life can be more healthy or happy.

We have had an unhappy summer: my eldest girl having been very ill with Diptheria, a new & very fatal throat complaint, & my youngest Baby Boy having died at the same time of Scarlet fever. My second daughter is also very delicate. After our misery we went to Isle of Wight for six weeks for a change.—

My health keeps very poor & I never know 24 hours comfort. I force myself to try & bear this as incurable misfortune. We all have our unhappinesses, only some are worse than others. And you have a heavy one in your deafness.—

With every good wish for the prosperity of your self & family, believe me | Dear Covington | Yours very sincerely |

Ch. Darwin

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